What is a “report”?

May 16th, 2011

In Schindler Elevator Corp. v. United States ex rel. Kirk, the majority opinion, per Justice Thomas, and the dissenting opinion, per Justice Ginsburg, take competing approaches to defining the term “report.”

From the majority opinion:

Because the statute does not define “report,” we look first to the word’s ordinary meaning. See Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc., 557 U. S. ___, ___ (2009) (slip op., at 7) (“Statutory construction must begin with the lan-guage employed by Congress and the assumption that the ordinary meaning of that language accurately expressesthe legislative purpose” (internal quotation marks omit-ted)); Asgrow Seed Co. v. Winterboer, 513 U. S. 179, 187 (1995) (“When terms used in a statute are undefined, wegive them their ordinary meaning”). A “report” is “some-thing that gives information” or a “notification,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1925 (1986), or “[a]n official or formal statement of facts or proceedings,”Black’s Law Dictionary 1300 (6th ed. 1990). See also 13 Oxford English Dictionary 650 (2d ed. 1989) (“[a]n account brought by one person to another”); American HeritageDictionary 1103 (1981) (“[a]n account or announcement that is prepared, presented, or delivered, usually in formal or organized form”); Random House Dictionary 1634 (2d ed. 1987) (“an account or statement describing in detail anevent, situation, or the like”).This broad ordinary meaning of “report” is consistentwith the generally broad scope of the FCA’s public disclo-sure bar.

Thomas finds not “textual” basis to adopt a narrow definition of “report,” finding the 2nd Circuit improperly applied the noscitur a sociis cannon.

Nor is there any textual basis for adopting a narrower definition of “report.” The Court of Appeals, in holdingthat FOIA responses were not “reports,” looked to the words “hearing, audit, or investigation,” and the phrase“criminal, civil, [and] administrative hearings.” It con-cluded that all of these sources “connote the synthesis of information in an investigatory context” to “serve someend of the government.” 601 F. 3d, at 107; cf. Brief for Respondent 30, n. 15 (“Each is part of the government’s ongoing effort to fight fraud”). Applying the noscitur a sociis canon, the Court of Appeals then determined thatthese “‘neighboring words’” mandated a narrower mean-ing for “report” than its ordinary meaning. 601 F. 3d, at107.The Court of Appeals committed the very error we re-versed in Graham County. Like the Fourth Circuit in that case, the Second Circuit here applied the noscitur a sociis canon only to the immediately surrounding words, to the exclusion of the rest of the statute. See 601 F. 3d, at 107, n. 6. We emphasized in Graham County that “all of the sources [of public disclosure] listed in §3730(e)(4)(A) pro-vide interpretive guidance.” 559 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 8). When all of the sources are considered, the reference to “news media”—which the Court of Appeals did not consider—suggests a much broader scope. Ibid.

Applying the ordinary definition of report does not render other provisions superfluous.

Finally, applying the ordinary meaning of “report” doesnot render superfluous the other sources of public disclo-sure in §3730(e)(4)(A). Kirk argues that reading “report”to mean “something that gives information” would sub-sume the other words in the phrase “report, hearing,audit, or investigation.” Brief for Respondent 23. But Kirk admits that hearings, audits, and investigations areprocesses “to obtain information.” Ibid. (emphasis added).Those processes are thus clearly different from “something that gives information.” Moreover, the statute contem-plates some redundancy: An “audit,” for example, willoften be a type of “investigation.”

Earlier this term, Justice Scalia had this to say about the canon against superfluity.

Justice Thomas focuses on the “drafting history”–that is how the statute changed, rather than the legislative history, which would entail citations to statements made by individual legislators. No doubt, Justice Scalia would have dissented from this section had he cited to the legislative history.

Thomas does not find that his preferred interpretation of the statute will “necessarily lead to unusual consequences.”

Justice Ginsburg largely agrees with the 2nd Circuits opinion, which she dubbed “carefully developed, highly persuasive.” The crux of her dissent is in her last paragraph:

By ranking DOL’s ministerial response an “administra-tive . . . report,” akin to a “Government Accounting Officereport,” §3730(e)(4)(A) (footnote omitted), the Court weak-ens the force of the FCA as a weapon against fraud onthe part of Government contractors. Why should a whistleblower attentive to the heightened pleading standards of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b) be barred from court if he seeks corroboration for his allegations, as Kirk did, through a FOIA request simply for copies of a contractor’s filings? After today’s decision, which severely limits whistleblowers’ ability to substantiate their allegationsbefore commencing suit, that question is worthy of Congress’ attention.

We see Justice Ginsburg calling for Congress’ attention in light of the majority opinion’s restriction of access to federal courts.